Friday 19th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot and on choosing planning enforcement as his topic. I thank him for taking the time to meet me earlier this week to discuss the detail of his Bill. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) and my friend the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), with whom I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, on their contributions.

As has been expressed in the Chamber through speeches and interventions, there cannot be many MPs or councillors of all parties and none who have not had constituents complain about the delays and apparent weaknesses in the planning enforcement system. The Bill seeks to address the most egregious breaches of planning law—those of multiple abuses. Often, but not exclusively, they are on the green belt or on metropolitan open land and on other green open spaces, involving uses such as junk yards, coach and lorry parks and mobile home parks. I cannot imagine the pain and stress experienced by immediate neighbours and those in the communities affected by the damage caused by these sites while they are operating.

I would like to add another example of egregious abuse: too many houses in multiple occupation. I have seen some truly terrible housing conditions in Hounslow, with back-garden shacks—not even sheds—and front rooms of small terraces split into two, with eight bedsits squeezed into a home. I think that Hounslow was the first local authority to use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 against such abuses. The victims of this abuse of the planning system are the residents who are charged rip-off rents, and their children. Furthermore, it appears that in these egregious examples, the perpetrators’ names come up repeatedly in different places.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken
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I absolutely accept the hon. Lady bringing up HMOs as an issue. Does she agree that planning enforcement should be strengthened to prevent the ongoing blight that concerns people particularly in London—especially in my constituency—of short-term, one-night lettings under Airbnb or The 90-night rule should be enforced under planning law.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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I appreciate the pressure that the hon. Member faces in her constituency. My friend the hon. Member for North Devon expressed concerns about seaside resort cities and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is also experiencing this blight. The Airbnb situation is a further example of weaknesses in the planning system. Perhaps the planning system in a wider sense needs strengthening rather than planning enforcement—that might be the subject for another debate and another Bill—but I understand the pain of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and that of her constituents.

I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that it is not fair that while everyone else play by the rules, a tiny number are apparently able to cock a snook at the council and their neighbours. His Bill is not aimed at the far more common lower-level breaches such as residential extensions built higher or closer than allowed in planning permission or under permitted development rights, but neighbours say that the system takes far too long to sort out even those cases. People do not appreciate that planning enforcement is not like licensing, where a miscreant’s premises can be closed down immediately.

I turn to the Bill’s clauses. First, it would create a single England-wide database of all major or repeated planning enforcement breaches that would be publicly available. The cost of maintaining the database is to be covered by charging planning fees. Does that mean increasing current fees? Local planning authorities are currently each required to maintain their own register of enforcement and stop notices, which contains details of enforcement notices, stop notices, breach of condition notices and planning enforcement orders. The data is there, but it is not all in one place.

If enacted, the clause would make it really easy for planning enforcement officers to see whether they were dealing with regular offenders who work across a number of council areas. This could certainly be useful. For example, in prosecuting cases for failure to comply with enforcement notices, local planning enforcement officers could join up and bring a bigger case against that particular individual. A database would also provide a source of reference, so that planning officers could look at the types of breaches that have been enforced against and how officers in different boroughs dealt with them, such as the wording used for complex breaches.

Let me return to how the database would be resourced. The Bill refers to making a call on planning fees. However, there are any number of pressures on planning department budgets, thanks to 10 years of Government cuts to local councils, so if there were any opportunity to raise funds from planning fees to support the planning system, I am sure that borough planning officers would have a long list of greater priorities to spend that money on, such as employing more staff. This week, the Royal Town Planning Institute told me that it had a report of one authority that has just five planning officers to deal with everything: planning policy, planning applications and enforcement. Besides, why should well-behaved applicants be subsidising the prosecution of unauthorised activity? Although I appreciate the intent, and the proposal has some merit, I fear that the database could be seen as a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Clause 2 would require all applicants for planning consent to declare if they or their company has ever had any planning enforcement action taken against them. One difficulty is that planning applications and planning permissions run with the land, and not the person who makes the application as such. It would therefore be quite easy for anyone to circumvent the need to declare whether they have had enforcement action taken against them or their company by simply getting someone else to put their name on the application.

Appearing on the list could also be held against someone in determining any application they make subsequently. Each application has to be judged on its merits and not the prior actions of a person making a new application on a different site. The provision could catch many perfectly innocent people who just do not understand the planning system. It ignores the fact that the majority of people subject to enforcement action breach the system unwittingly; in the vast majority of cases the process of being served with an enforcement notice leads them to rectify the mistake and, in the process, learn about the planning system. Why should they be forced to declare and have their past mistake hanging over them?

Clause 3 would enable the local planning authority to seek an injunction in the High Court, with the effect of a stop notice, so that no further planning applications could be considered on that particular site. Now, I am no planning lawyer but my understanding is that provisions for injunctions are already available to local planning authorities under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

I share the frustration of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge with the situation in his constituency, and the cases raised by other Members. I do not know what other remedies were sought by the planning authorities in these egregious cases, nor why they did not work. As he will be aware, there are a number of tools in the enforcement officers’ armour that can be used to tackle ongoing and serious breaches of planning consent, and the ignoring of planning enforcement notices. Those tools include stop notices and temporary stop notices, POCA, planning enforcement orders if there may have been concealment—I remember the case of a farmer who built a house hidden behind walls of hay bales; I think he was prosecuted in the end—and injunctions, as I have already said.

Many of the appalling cases described by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge are subject to other criminal and civil proceedings relating to pollution, noise and smell, housing conditions and tenure, health and safety breaches, modern slavery and more.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory
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The hon. Lady is demonstrating well the complexity of these cases; our constituents all feel frustrated by how long and complex they are. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, our constituents have to put up with it while cases go on for months and often years. Does the hon. Lady welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has brought this issue to the House for us to examine? Hopefully, Ministers can take the matter back to the Department and it will come back later in the planning enforcement paper.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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The hon. Lady anticipates the end of my speech.

In the planning system, enforcement action is intended to be remedial rather than punitive. That might be the difficulty. To carry out development without the necessary consent is not in itself a criminal offence, and as I understand it this place has always baulked at the idea of making it one; however, the failure to comply with a planning enforcement notice is a criminal offence and carries the risk of heavy fines and, ultimately, imprisonment.

We have a lot of sympathy for the Bill and, most certainly, for the reasons why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has brought it to the House, and we understand why so many Members with green belt and open space in their constituencies are present, but we are not convinced that the specific measures in the Bill will actually address the egregious breaches. Clearly, a failure somewhere in the system has allowed to arise the situation about which Members have spoken so eloquently; it is cumbersome and slow.

In conclusion—

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Will the hon. Lady include in her conclusion a consideration of whether it is appropriate for people to be able to continue to appeal against enforcement notices? That is where a lot of the abuse arises, particularly in respect of the length of time.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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As I say, I am no planning lawyer. The situation clearly needs to be investigated. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge described just that situation when we met earlier.

We would like assurance from the Government that there will be a review of the particularly extreme examples of planning abuses and the cases that go on and on for many years. Particular attention should be given to cases in which it appears that the same offenders try the same tactics at multiple sites, which is the reason why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge had the idea of a database. The review should consider whether aspects of planning law should be amended to better address the kind of breaches that have led the hon. Member to introduce the Bill.